April 1, 2015

Case study

Public events where policy arguments take center stage: Batalla de Ideas

A couple of weeks ago On Think Tanks, the British Embassy in Peru, the Universidad Católica in LimaAgencia Fauna, and Makaco organised the first Batalla de Ideas in Perú.

The idea of Batalla de Ideas emerged a few years ago after witnessing two different approaches to public policy debate in the UK. The first was Battle of Ideas, organised by the Institute of Ideas. This festival of debates tries to create a space in which everyone feels comfortable expressing an idea. One does not have to be an expert or hold a diploma or have the ‘right’ business card to hold, share and defend an opinion about an issue of public interest.

The second one was Policy Fight Club, organised by Policy Exchange. We wanted to draw from these innovations and find an approach that may, at once, work in the Peruvian context and, at the same time, challenge it.

The approach

Batalla de Ideas emerged over a more than a year of discussions with Peruvian researchers and policymakers. The final concept (and name) was shaped by circumstance as much as by purpose. I had preferred “Policy Fight Club -Perú” or “El Club de la Pelea de Políticas”.

We launched the call for first Batalla in mid February 2015 with a promise that we’d talk about urban, economic and social inclusion and were soon happily surprised to find that more than 600 Facebook users and 200 Eventbrite subscribers promised to attend.

So what was it that drew so much attention from the general public?

A focus on policy problems and policy ideas

The model we delivered involves:

  • 3 rounds (related to a similar issue or subject, in this case, inclusion: urban, youth employment, and discrimination)
  • 3 policy questions (one per round, asked by a relevant policymaker: from the Government of Lima, the Ministry of Labour, and the Ministry for Women)
  • 3 or 4 policy proposals (per round, presented by a mix of experts, journalists, activists, and citizens)
  • Public scrutiny (mainly questions of clarification)
  • Public vote (to decide which was the best (presented, articulated, original, interesting, etc.) idea)

Background materials to support engagement

We prepared, by the way, a short 2 pager for each of the three policy questions (Policy Question documents). These helped to set the scene before the actual Batalla.

In preparation to the Batalla, we worked with the speakers and helped them to put together a 2-pager (some were a bit longer) to present their ideas. You can read them here: Batalla de Ideas Perú documentos de política. Here is a good example: Policy Proposal document on Cycling which, in fact, won its round.

Some of the panelists prepared a presentation (using Power Point or Prezi) while others preferred to do without them.

We uploaded all this to the event’s page (developed in Eventbrite) and a Facebook page for the event.

The event was web streamed to allow questions via Twitter and keep a record of the Batalla (you can see the whole event online now).

The result

It is still early to assess the result of our approach. But we know that there were connections made during the event itself with some panelists coming up to their fellow ‘fighters’ asking for more information.

One panelist, Gino Costa, even chose to feature a competing idea, by Federico Dulkelberg (which won the round) on his newspaper column:

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The audience’s reaction was positive, too. This first batalla was a 3-hours affair. Most remained throughout the entire time. At some point in the afternoon there were no seats left in the 150+ seat venue.

Some lessons related to public policy and policy debates

We are still in the process of thinking about what we’ve learned. But a few things emerge that I think are relevant to think tanks across the world.

First, talking about policy has become, in many places, something that is reserved for experts. The public at large is expected to remain passive; to watch and listen. So when you ask them to participate, to present their own views and solutions, they face an uphill struggle. Think tanks need to recognise that if more people (including non-experts) can engage in policy debates the chances that their own ideas will be taken up will increase.

Second, this passive-audience approach to public policy debates has forced the public into a corner limiting their capacity to engage. Asking a question, really asking one, has become an almost impossible task. If putting forward an idea is hard, asking a questions appears to be harder. Think tanks should not focus all their attention on policy solutions. They should pay attention to policy questions, too. Influence is likely to be greater if the general public is collectively asking the questions for which they have an answer. But if nobody is (or knows how to) then the think tank’s solution will fall on deaf ears.

Finally, public policy debates are a form of entertainment. You do not spend three hours in an auditorium listening to 11 policy proposals if you do not find it at the very least entertaining. Think tanks need to give up protocol and tradition (sometimes) to reach out to new audiences. But this means that their researchers will have to accept that their views are no less legitimate that those of their fellow citizens, experts or not.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal

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